The Opera Holland Park season got off to an impressive start with a rousing new production of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West. Though the opera contains some of the composer’s most opulent music, it has never quite taken hold in the mainstream repertoire alongside his more popular works. The subject matter is no doubt partially to blame – the concept of a spaghetti western opera went down well at its world premiere at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1910, but struggled to garner equal adulation in Europe – and the demands placed on cast, staging, and orchestra surely don’t help. More’s the pity, as the score, echoing shades of Debussy and Strauss, is one of Puccini’s most modern and interesting, the drama as gripping as anything he ever set. With an impressive cast, luscious orchestral playing, and a flawed but visually attractive staging, Opera Holland Park’s production succeeds both in making a case for Puccini’s often underrated masterwork and also launching their season in style.

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The locus of the piece is Minnie, proprietress of an American saloon populated by miners driven west in the gold rush of the 1850s. Minnie looks after these displaced men, providing a civilising influence, offering comfort and whiskey seasoned with morality lessons from the Bible. The character runs the risk of descending into cliché, the good-hearted woman offering moral grounding to rapscallions with hearts of gold, yet its portrayal can be surprisingly moving. Any performance of the opera stands or falls based on its credibility, and Susannah Glanville held the evening together with her abundant charm and bright, clarion soprano. Hers was an entrance with flair, a hidden panel depositing her on top of the bar, pistol blazing; she sang beautifully, mustering the semi-Wagnerian heft required to soar above Puccini’s rich orchestration. She brought personality and appeal to the role, her charisma and radiant, pure tone making her performance the standout of the evening. If her eye-catching cowgirl outfit with its pattern of red, white, and glaring silver trim made her look rather a parody of herself, she had the poise and conviction to pull it off.

Life changes for Minnie when the infamous bandit Ramerrez, masquerading under the sobriquet Dick Johnson, appears in her bar. His intention to rob it of the miners’ hard-earned savings quickly melts in the heat of his attraction to Minnie, and he decides to meet her at her cabin that night rather than rejoining his gang as planned. Tenor Jeff Gwaltney ably embodied the passion and the danger inherent in the bandit, his acting especially convincing in the second and third acts. He was somewhat overshadowed by Ms. Glanville, who succeeded in being audible over the orchestra in a way he sometimes could not, especially at the beginning. However, his voice seemed to warm up as the performance wore on, and once it did, the golden timbre of his voice gave ardent expression to the role’s professions of love and anguish. In the opera’s big showpiece aria, ‘Ch’ella mi creda’, he sang beautifully and with feeling.

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Stephen Barlow’sproduction also comes into better focus in the later acts, when the large stage becomes centred on the intimacy of Minnie’s cabin, cleverly designed by Yannis Thavoris as a charming tableau with fireplace, bed, table, closet, and attic, with open space adjacent to the cabin to showcase the falling snow and eventually the final scene. Richard Howell’s lighting deserves special mention, the darkening blues and plays of light over the stage at the onset of night evocatively atmospheric. The whole affair was well-realised and certainly quite pleasant to look at.

The first act had felt rather more puzzling. Mr. Barlow has moved the opera’s setting forward a hundred years in time and transposed it geographically for no readily apparent reason. The California mining community of the text becomes rather a group of ‘atomic soldiers’ situated in Las Vegas during testing of the atomic bomb in the Nevada Desert. Minnie’s saloon is now the ‘Polka Room’ of the Golden Nugget Casino, bright neon lights advertising the bar with gambling tables littered over the wide Holland Park stage. Taken literally, this shift detracts from the logic of the story, doing little to explain why there is such a dearth of women in 1951 in Las Vegas to make Minnie such a rarity to the men who adore her. Never mind answering why the soldiers bandy about a Confederate flag as they prepare to hang Johnson in the third act, or the massive blizzard that occurs in Vegas in Act II. The caviling eye could but wonder at the director’s sense of American geography.

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Fortunately, with the exception of a few non-sequiturs, the production mostly proceeds as planned with little intervention. Ms. Glanville and Mr. Gwaltney are wonderful together in their impassioned love duet, the London Sinfonietta playing ravishingly. Mr. Gwlatney’s singing opened up rather a lot here, and Ms. Glanville continued to impress with her glowing high notes and poignant acting. Minnie’s high stakes game of poker with sheriff Jack Rance, who is himself in love with Minnie, with Johnson’s life hanging in the balance, makes for riveting theatre, tension ratcheted up by the power surging through the orchestra. The Rance of Simon Thorpe was on great form here, his baritone gruff and resonant. His portrayal is more sympathetic than some,his cold determination in Act II crumbling in the final scene as he relents and waves farewell to Minnie.

These scenes of tension and romance – the love duet, the poker game, Johnson’s final aria – were vividly painted by the orchestra. Puccini’s complex score with all its luscious orchestration was given shape by conductor Stuart Stratford, coming together for some truly memorable scenes in the final two acts. The middle of the first act dragged on a little, pit and stage reflecting one another; as Mr. Barlow’s direction could have used more definition during the crowd scenes when the stage is filled with the miners (sorry, ‘atomic soldiers’), so too could the orchestra have benefited from quicker tempi and fluidity. The London Sinfonietta played wonderfully, however, and it was impossible not be swept up in the music as the evening progressed.

The overall success of the performance owed much to the superb Opera Holland Park Chorus and the supporting cast. The crowd scenes in the first act were genuinely charming, Jake Wallace’s wistful ode to the dream of home, ‘Che faranno i vecchi miei’, sung with poignancy by Simon Wilding. It is hard not to be moved by this beautiful scene, and the consequent donations offered by all to help send the homesick Jim of Aidan Smith home.

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One of the difficulties of staging this piece is the expansive cast requirements, featuring no less than seventeen named roles. Standouts in the supporting cast include Minnie’s Native American servant Wowkle, impressively taken by Laura Woods; the lullaby she sings is a straight transcription of a traditional Native American melody, and her rendition was lovely. Neal Cooper impresses behind the bar as a very likeable Nick, as did Nicholas Garrett as a distinctly charming Sonora. Graeme Broadbent offers a civilised contrast to Rance’s zeal as Ashby, the Wells-Fargo agent on Ramerrez’s trail. The rest were well acquitted by Peter Braithwaite’s Sid, Jung Soo Yun’s Trin, Tom Stoddart’s Billy Jackrabbit, Henry Grant Kerswell’s Castro, James Harrison’s Bello, Oliver Brignall’s Harry, Edward Hughes’s Joe, John Lofthouses’s Happy, and Michael Bradley’s Pony Express Rider.

La fanciulla del West wears its heart on its sleeve, even by comparison to other Puccini operas, which is saying something. Mr. Barlow’sproduction falters in its moments of obvious kitsch – Minnie’s lurid cowgirl outfit worn amidst a crowd of soberly dressed soldiers in squaddie uniform, the way she glides across the stage on a motorcycle with Nick to save Johnson in the third act, then, having achieved this, boards a TWA flight complete with smiling flight attendant – which goads laughs from the audience but also undercut the emotional ingenuousness at the heart of the work.

Nevertheless, the production gets more things right than wrong, and the whole makes for a highly entertaining evening. See it for the opportunity to hear Ms. Glanville’s gloriously sung Minnie, and to enjoy some of Puccini’s richest and less commonplace music.

John E. de Wald

3.5 stars

(Photos : Fritz Curzon)

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